If These Castle Walls Could Talk
Today is a perfect day to visit a castle in Ireland. Grey, misty, damp, and a bit of mystery in the air. Castles are mysterious, secretive and overwhelming. Ireland never had any kings. They were under the kingdom and power of England. The Normans came to Ireland in the Medieval times and built castles that didn’t last long. They were trying to conquer Ireland. Many of the castles became ruins or were destroyed. Irish castles were built by foreigners trying to overtake and control the Irish people.
My four classmates, a married couple from New Jersey, two Irish women, and I pile into an old blue Ford van. Members of the Ireland Writing Retreat on Donegal held up in the inn for almost four hours. The weather is not being very cooperative. Then again it is Ireland. It begins to sprinkle as we travel about thirty minutes to our destination. The land is desolating. There is no one around. There are a few farmhouses, some goats roaming around and eating grass, and a lot of green. It is green everywhere. At home in Arizona, I see the desert. Cactus, snakes, coyotes, and bobcats. It is exciting to see such a different climate. I can put up with this rain for now.
We arrive at Glenveagh Castle located in Churchill, Letterkenny, Ireland. It is no longer sprinkling. It is pouring. We jiggle the door latch to open the door. The door slides open and out we jump. My umbrella refuses to open. Norma, one of my Irish classmate attempts to share hers with me. Norma is an author. She has written two books. She is a very happy woman in her 80s and we have become friends. Her daughter is the same age as mine and we both lost our husbands about three years ago. She has become my hiking buddy. There is only one minor problem with the umbrella situation. She is much shorter than me. I slowly slip the umbrella out of her hands and hold it over both of our heads. We share a laugh. We head straight to the information center. The room is very small. The receptionist is behind the information desk. There are at least eight other people squeezed into the space. A family with two young boys are sitting on the bench. The older boy keeps asking his father “Do we have to see another castle? Can I wait in the car?” This kid is castled out. We get our tickets and have to wait for about twenty minutes. I am not waiting in this crowded office. I want to go outside and take pictures.
I head outside. I have my trusty raincoat with a hood that I bought on Amazon one week before the trip. Thanks to the quick delivery provided by my Amazon Prime membership, it arrived two days before my flight. I am sure I will be protected. It is raining much harder now. My curiosity will not go away rain or not. I take out my camera. Cover the lens to the best of my ability and start snapping away. I am in the garden. The garden is walled and was planted and taken care of by the wife of John Adair, the original owner of the castle. Unlike her husband, Cornelia was a kind landlady and very generous to the poor. The garden was modeled after Italian gardens. There is a total of eleven hectares of informal gardens with a different theme. I wish I could see the flowers without the rain. The smell of the rain and the flowers are powerful for someone like me who sees rain twice a year. Yellow dahlias, pink and white roses, Japanese cherry blossoms, yellow osterglocken (daffodil) from Wales, white orchids from Panama (Holy Spirit Flower), and the pink Scottish Bluebell (national flower of Scotland). It is September and many of the flowers have reached their peak season.
I find a small bench and sit for a while protected from the torrential rain falling around me. I look around me and the mist has fallen and taken over the beautiful scenery of the garden. It is very mystifying. I find my mind wandering off and thinking what life would be in a castle. I look at my watch and realize our tour will begin in five minutes. I navigate my way to the entrance. I feel like I am walking in heaven. The rain makes me happy and gives me energy. It adds mystery to the castle.
John Adair was one of the most hated men in Ireland. Many Donegal natives would consider it a curse to even mention his name in conversation. Adair had a temper and felt a sense of entitlement that most people did not appreciate. He became a very affluent man by traveling to New York in 1850 and working on land speculation. In 1870, he returned to Glenveagh, Donegal. He began to buy up smaller portions of land the locals owned to create his large estate. The local farmers were struggling to keep their families fed and clothed. Adair was not interested in the problems of the people around him. He had no interest in helping them.
Adair had a dream. He wanted to build a castle that would be much bigger than Balmoral, Queen Victoria’s Scottish Retreat. In 1870 he built the castle on 16,958 hectares of mountains, bogs, lakes, and woods. Glenveagh Castle is four stories tall, rectangular, and made from granite. The walls are 11/2 meters thick. The castle includes turrets, a round tower, and fortified battlement ramparts to keep out the enemies. Adair didn’t have any enemies to keep out. He wanted to keep out the Irish farmers. They were no threat to him. Just a nuisance.
Our tour begins in the entryway. The walls are off-white and four pairs of deer busts with their antlers adorn the hallway. Two of them mounted on the wall and two on small pedestals. John Adair was an avid hunter. He replaced the poor Irish people with deer. This made me sad and I wonder how a man could be so cruel. We enter the music room. It is small, blue ceramic fireplace in the corner, blue/green plaid wallpaper on the walls (reminds me of my school uniform), an antler chandelier hangs in the center of the room, and a big window opens to the lake below.
Our guide tells us this is where the men hung out, smoked their cigars, and shared hunting stories. We visited the oval bedroom. The guests slept here. If they needed anything, they had a little bell that would summon the servants. There were twelve indoor staff and eight gardeners.
One of the bigger rooms in the castle is the Drawing Room where the women would meet. They gossiped, worshiped themselves in their mirrors and worried that their makeup would melt because the room was so warm. They didn’t want to “lose face”. This is true and everyone in the group began to laugh. The women talked about their husbands, boyfriends, and children. They didn’t have any household duties. If they needed someone to attend to them, they rang the bell and someone would be at their beck and call.
I wanted to find out how the castle was built. Who were the laborers who carried the stones from the lake and painstakingly built the walls? Were they paid for their work? Were they the poor Irish farmers living on the land of John Adair? The guide didn’t give us this information. Another mystery.
The first thing Adair did was to evict the local families. Some say it was because he wanted to “improve the view from his castle.” Who wants to look at the poor?” The local families lived in homes with thatched roofs made of cereal straw and reed covered with wooden rafters. The walls were double packed with earth. The floors were flagstone or packed earth that didn’t help in keeping the home warm. A hearth was located in the central area of the home. There were neither chimneys nor windows for the smoke to escape. The people would have had to pay more taxes for the windows. The soot-blackened homes were known as “black houses”.
The locals became very upset and protested his hunting retreats crossing over their lands. They reported him as trespassing. He became furious and even more determined to get these people off of the land. Adair wanted to use the land as a sheep farm. He had brought his own shepherds who eventually got into a bit of trouble. One of them was accused of murder and having an affair with the dead man’s wife. She became pregnant and was sent off to Scotland.
Eviction of the locals began with Adair acquiring the necessary documents that would allow him to send his “crowbar men” house-to-house evicting families. The first house they came upon was the home of a widow and her seven children. After the family was given the news, their house was destroyed so that they could not come back and live in it. A total of two hundred and forty-four people were homeless including one hundred and fifty-nine children. Michael O’Grady paid for half of the people to move to Australia. O’Grady had purchased land in Australia for the sole purpose of providing land for the displaced farmers. Forty-two of the evicted ended up in workhouses in Letterkenny. These evictions were the most infamous in the history of Ireland.
John Adair passed away in 1885. His wife lived until 1921 and was remembered as being kind-hearted. Glenveagh was bought by a Harvard professor, Arthur Kinsley Porter. He led a very lavish lifestyle. Frequent dinner parties, deer stalking, fishing, and kept a wonderful garden. He disappeared from nearby Inishbofin Island in 1933. His death is a mystery.
Castles are pieces of European history. They represent the great divide between the rich and the poor. Who built this grand castle in Glenveagh? There is no mention of the men who carried the massive granite stones one by one up and down the hills. Were these men paid? How much were they paid? Where are the answers? I can only guess that some of the farmers left behind built the castle with no pay. They were slave laborers. There is no plaque or description of the builders. Could it be something that people just want to forget? It is important to remember history and to honor those who put so much sweat into this great castle.
I left the castle with these questions. We had some time before our van returned. We stopped at the restaurant in the visitor center. There were pies, cookies, chocolates, tea, and coffee. We all ordered something to eat and drink. I ordered coffee and a piece of cheesecake. I asked my group if they knew who built the castle. No one had the answer. The information desk wouldn’t give me an answer. Is it a secret? I want to know.
The van arrives. The rain slows to an annoying drizzle. I am disappointed. I would like to spend more time at the castle. We drive down the road and I can’t resist turning around and looking at the castle tower. It is so tall and profound. I can imagine what the life of the people outside of the castle and inside the castle was like. Two completely different groups occupying the same land.
The road we travel back is the same road that so many of the Irish walked to arrive at their ships taking them out of their country into a far and distant place. Places such as the USA and Australia, no longer in charge of their destiny.
This bridge was crossed by the evicted farmers and their families.
A message carved in Gaelic wishing everyone safe travels and mourning their loss
I look out into the vast green farmland. It is quiet and has an eerie feeling. There are no people in the fields, driving cars, or walking around. Was it always like this? It looks so lonely. No one talks as we make our way back to the Tec.
The countryside as it is today
Castles are mysterious. They hold secrets that we will never know.